Tomorrow marks the beginning of the school year in Australia. The Dahlia kids are going into Years 8,7,4, and 2 – split between two schools. The oldest two both attend a selective stream public high school, while the younger two are at a public primary school.
Last week, we went camping with some other parents from the primary school, and I read the books above. I thoroughly recommend White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, especially if you are interested in learning about how society works to keep racism alive. The myth that racist=bad person is busted in the first paragraph, with much nuance involved. I don’t recommend the forward, unless you love overly academic language, however, the actual book is amazing.
How does this relate to schools?
There is a chapter in this book that discusses schooling, and the white flight of the aspirational whites who send their kids away from home to ‘good’ schools. This is basically code for ‘white’ schools, while ‘bad’ schools are seen as those with a high percentage of non-white people. Reading this chapter helped clarify something I’ve been puzzling over with regard to selective schools. The selective high school system in Australia is intended to be a place where gifted students can thrive, however, like all systems, it’s not fair. One of the biggest problems with the testing is that it biases towards children who are from well-educated backgrounds. In 2016, almost three quarters of selective school students (73%) come from the highest quarter of socio-educational advantage in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald article I gained this statistic from then uses a minor detail to further push this disadvantage by saying “two per cent of students in fully selective schools came from the lowest quarter.” Note the difference between ‘all selective school students’ and ‘fully selective school students’. It might seem like nothing, except that in NSW there are 19 fully selective schools, and 29 schools with both selective and mainstream classes. The fully selective schools are perceived to be harder to get into. It’s a minor point as the kids have to sit the same test, however, there is a preference among many parents to be seen in a fully selective school. When a kid sits the selective test, they must nominate three schools that they wish to attend. Certain schools are more likely to be nominated by parents than others. In the Dahlia family, we nominated the three schools that were closest to us geographically, and would have been happy with the local non-selective public school if they’d missed out.
How does this notion of gifted (or elitism) line up with racism?
Every time I talk to a white parent about my oldest two kids being in a selective school, their response is an awkward juggle between two points:
– they must be smart
– aren’t all the kids there just Asian kids who have done loads of rote learning?
The second question implies that the first one isn’t really true, and many parents also ask how much tutoring my kids did. I used to say not much – they did practice tests at home with us. However, in light of my recent reading, I’ve realised that (while true) my answer only reinforces the racist assumptions. My answer might change to another truth. “About the same as their friends.” Perhaps some of the kids at that school were hot housed with loads of tutoring, but in my experience, this is a myth perpetrated by people whose kids didn’t make the cut, or by people who want to maintain the belief that Asian (and other non-white) kids don’t really belong there.
Many white parents go a step further and ask if my kids have friends outside of school. I always puzzled over this, but reading White Fragility has made me realise that these parents are uncomfortable with the idea that my white kids will have school friends who are mostly not-white. Are these white parents actually asking if I curate my kid’s friendships to ensure they have lots of white friends? Spoiler: Australia is mostly a white country (80%ish), so yes, they have some white friends. It’s unavoidable. Personally, I think it’s wonderful that my kids have friends whose ethnic origins include China, Japan, Brazil, Vietnam, Korea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India. Most of their friends were born in Australia – not that that particular distinction matters at all, but there you go.
The constant juggle I hear from white parents is them trying to balance the competing issues of selective=good, and lots of non-white kids=bad.
Whenever people mention the unhealthy ‘hot housed’ environment at selective schools, I will take that as a racist comment. Wanting to work hard and take an opportunity is not unhealthy. Saying that the non-white kids at selective schools only got there by scamming the system (rote learning, or whatever other excuse) is bullshit. Telling me that my kids are clever for getting in, while simultaneously telling me that their friends aren’t as clever is racism.
My personal belief is that the world is a diverse and interesting place, and white people are doing themselves a disservice by segregating themselves.